Junior hockey close to returning to Northern Lights Arena

Junior hockey may be coming back to Alpena very soon.

The Rhinelander, Wis., Street Cats of the Midwest Junior Hockey League have reached a three-year agreement with Northern Lights Arena to relocate to Alpena and begin play this fall.

The agreement is currently on hold as the arena has yet to reach an agreement with the county. Bill Peterson, chairman of the Northern Lights Arena-Community board, is hopeful a deal can be reached next week.

“It’s another avenue of entertainment for the community. Kids are coming from all over the world to play,” Peterson said. “(The team) wants to be here and we’ll wait and see if they can make a go of it here.”

The Street Cats would be one of four northern Michigan teams in the MWJHL, a Junior A hockey league. The Michigan-based league also will have franchises in Traverse City, Sault Ste. Marie in Marquette. Of the nine teams in the league, only one isn’t located in Michigan, the Bloomington, Ind., Blaze.

In the inaugural season of MWJHL play last season, the Street Cats finished sixth out of 10 teams with a 20-24-4 record. The team had 12 Michigan players last season as well as a number of players from overseas. The team is coached by Igor Myaskovskiy, a former Russian college coach who has trained players for the Red Army and USSR national teams.

Alpena hasn’t had a junior hockey team since 2011, when the Alpena Thunder, a Tier III junior team, left after one season of play. Before that the Alpena IceDiggers played at Northern Lights Arena from 2005-2010.

The Street Cats’ move to Alpena helps cut down on the cost of travel now that most of the league is based in Michigan. Markets like Traverse City and Alpena were logical choices for a young league looking to expand its territory in the state.

“Both venues are perfect venues for pay-to-play junior hockey,” MWJHL Commissioner Scott Gardiner said. “I think those markets will be good for our league, we just have to wait and make sure all our I’s are dotted and our T’s are crossed.”

Gardiner said the league will complete its scheduling next week and play is slated to begin in September.

Peterson said NLA’s main ice sheet will open in September and is hoping to open the arena’s other ice sheet in October. The Street Cats’ schedule wouldn’t conflict with Alpena High’s school hockey schedule either. Peterson also said that part of the Street Cats’ contract states the team can’t recruit players who would play for Alpena High until after they’ve graduated.

The Wildcats’ schedule is already completed for next season and Peterson gave Gardiner a list of the arena’s open dates to help formulate the Street Cats’ schedule. The Street Cats also practice in the early morning, which wouldn’t conflict with the Wildcats’ practice times.

“The locker room is already there and they can move in right away and start setting up shop (once the agreement is reached),” Peterson said.

James Andersen can be reached via email at sports@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5694. Follow James on Twitter @ja_alpenanews.